Stage fright. Are you ever afraid you’ll forget something important? Or feel like you can’t come up with quite the right words? Or feel like your thoughts are all over the place?
Speaking anxiety is not a disease.
Speaking anxiety is just a symptom.
To Cure the Disease
At it’s root, I am convinced that the disease is actually false expectations. My diagnosis is not very popular. I tell people that if they suffer anxiety as a symptom of speaking, then more often than not they’re doing it wrong.
Our education system and culture has taught us some very bad presentation skills that can only be overcome with radical reconstruction surgery. We’ve been taught to expect success, when in reality it doesn’t always work. If the conventional wisdom usually worked you wouldn’t have any doubts that it would work, and you wouldn’t feel anxious. The disease is false expectations.
If conventional wisdom worked, fear of public speaking wouldn’t be so common!
If you want to cure the disease you have to change your approach. My prescription to cure the disease is to master the 8 SpeechDeck principles, however, that is not today’s subject.
To Alleviate the Symptoms
Lots of people don’t want to cure the disease, they just want to alleviate the symptoms. If you only give an occasional speech, or just need to get through a stressful event, you might not care about the disease.
I’m about to give you techniques that I never give my clients in person. In person, I only coach people who want to eradicate the disease, BUT, if you’re not a regular speaker you might not want the doctor to recommend radical lifestyles changes.
I’m not going to give you well-known advice like taking deep breaths. Here are a few lesser-known, scientifically proven techniques that will alleviate your public speaking anxiety symptoms on short notice:
Lots of research shows that, in general, more exercise will help you feel less anxious (Smith 2013, Costigan & Parker 2015). However, even if you are not a bodybuilder or marathon runner, you can decrease stress by giving your nervous energy somewhere to go.
Once you start speaking, your nervous energy has a natural release, but before your presentation or sometimes at the beginning, you fidget or shake or have other physical manifestations. Stop trying to hold still! Give that energy somewhere to go.
Don’t do anything strenuous that will wear you out, but you can go for a walk, beat you’re hands to some music, or stand up and stretch.
Anxiety naturally makes us clam up, tighten up, and repress. You have to intentionally do the opposite: open up and move.
The only difference between fear and courage is that the scared back down and the courageous follow through.
Likewise, the sick feeling you get when you tell yourself you feel anxious is the exact same sick feeling you get when you experience a roller coaster, or skydive, or go through with your wedding.
All you have to do is reframe the feeling in your mind. Stop telling yourself you’re nervous and instead tell yourself that you’re excited! You’re better off getting amped up than calming down.
Here’s a study by Alison Wood Brooks published in the journal of experimental psychology that tests this exact technique.
If you have a hard time convincing yourself you’re excited, then try a new technique from my SpeechDeck communication skills system. It’s a lot easier to convince yourself that you’re excited to try something new than to lie about an old habit when you’re not actually excited.
Anchoring is a psychological technique of creating a subconscious association in your mind. For example, you can actually hire a hypnotist, or some NLP practitioners to help you create a relaxing anchor in your mind.
The therapist tries to associate a certain physical sensation or specific object in your hands with a relaxing feeling. For example, if a hypnotist trains your brain to feel relaxed every time you pinch your left ear, then all you have to do is pinch your left ear before you go on stage.
That may sound a little strange if you’ve never heard of it before, so let me give you a more familiar alternative: Do whatever it is that you already associate with relaxation.
You don’t have to go to a hypnotist. Just find something that you already find relaxing. For me, it’s Beethoven. Playing Beethoven on the piano or listening to it relaxes me. I already have a natural subconscious anchor in my brain for Beethoven.
If I catch myself feeling overly anxious and I don’t have a piano nearby, I just hit the imaginary play button on Beethoven’s “Pathetique” in my mind.
For you, it’s something else: your favorite mp3 track, taking off your shoes, washing your face, closing your eyes, sitting under a shade tree, chewing gum, a tall iced tea, holding someone’s hand, etc.
You already have dozens of anchors built-in to your psyche. Pick one that would be appropriate for the setting, and do it! Just like your speaking habits have trained your brain to feel anxiety, your relaxation anchors have pre-trained your brain to create instant release.
Don’t keep your fear of public speaking bottled up. Don’t let it explode either. Give your stage fright a proper channel to dissipate. One great option is to simply take a few minutes before your presentation and put your feelings into words.
One study showed that “putting one’s feelings into words, can help to downregulate that affect, as occurs with intentional forms of emotion regulation, such as reappraisal and distraction.” Others’ research confirms the same principle.
Good option: Talk to someone and honestly share how you feel.
Better option: Put your feelings into written words.
Emotions are hard to put into words because language requires logic! Writing about your speaking anxiety forces you to turn on the ultra-logical language centers of your brain. It forces your emotions through a rational outlet and thereby you force yourself to approach your feelings from a more logical, and less emotionally reactionary perspective.
Be careful not to “vent” your fears or anger, as that will make them worse. Venting is especially easy while talking. Perhaps that is why putting your emotions into written words works better.
If you really just want to treat the stage fright symptoms, anchor your brain to something normal and relaxing, reframe the situation in your mind, give your body a physical outlet, and put your feelings into written words. It works, but only temporarily.
If you want a permanent solution, you have to stop repeating habits that make the anxiety surface in the first place. If you want a permanent solution, you have to try something completely new. Check our this blog and SpeechDeck.com for specific techniques.